China lashes ‘provocative challenge’ from US, Japan at Shangri-La Dialogue

A senior Chinese general has hit back at a “provocative challenge” from the US and Japan, denouncing criticism of Beijing’s handling of a spate of escalating territorial disputes in the region.

The countries squared off in a war of words that at times overshadowed an Asian security forum at the weekend and also highlighted the potential for the Australian government’s close defence ties with Washington and Tokyo to anger its largest trading partner, China.

On Sunday, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, the People’s Liberation Army’s deputy chief of general staff, said his delegation at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore was surprised by what appeared to be a co-ordinated and staged “provocative challenge against China” by the Japanese Prime Minister and the US Defence Secretary.

“The Chinese delegation … have this feeling that the speeches of Mr [Shinzo] Abe and Mr [Chuck] Hagel are a provocative action against China,” General Wang said.

Earlier, he had told reporters Mr Hagel’s speech was full of “hegonism, threat and intimidation”.

Australia’s Defence Minister David Johnston reiterated shared concerns over “recent developments which have served to raise tensions in the region” at the forum.

Echoing similar comments made by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Friday, Senator Johnston said the Australian government welcomed the US taking on a greater role in Asia, a statement unlikely to sit well with a Chinese leadership that views the US strategic “pivot” back into the region as an antagonistic move designed to contain its rise.

“It bears repeating … that the continue presence of the US has underpinned the region’s stability for the past 70 years,” Senator Johnston told the summit on Saturday.

“That’s why Australia welcomes the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. We see it as an opportunity to foster further close co-operation in the region.”

Mr Abe and Mr Hagel used unusually strong language to describe what they saw as China’s “destabilising” and “unilateral” push to assert territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea – a source of significant tension between China and its neighbours including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Beijing has also accused Mr Abe’s nationalist administration of fear-mongering to “stealthily advance his dream for Japan to again be a militarist power” – while warning this would only result in a regional “arms race” that would set back economic development and co-operation

In their speeches, Mr Abe and Mr Hagel made direct references to close military co-operation with Australia – an unprecedented elevation of Japan-Australia security ties during Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s visit to Japan in April, and the rotation of US marines through Darwin respectively.

Diverting from prepared remarks, General Wang said that the speeches were “unacceptable”, accusing Mr Abe, who delivered the keynote address on Friday, and Mr Hagel, who spoke on Saturday, of co-ordinating and encouraging each other to attack China in their remarks.

Long-standing tensions in the South China Sea have been stoked to fresh highs in recent weeks as Chinese and Vietnamese vessels faced off over a Chinese state-owned oil rig drilling in disputed waters. Beijing and Hanoi have traded accusations over responsibility over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the rig.

There have also been reports of near misses between Chinese and Japanese aircraft in the airspace near disputed islands, as well.

Ms Bishop, who clashed with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi late last year after criticising China’s declaration of a air defence zone over the East China Sea, said China could choose one of two possible courses.

The first would have it integrate peacefully into the global community in line with President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”, while the alternate scenario would see a more nationalistic China wracked with domestic and external conflicts fuelled by historic territorial disputes and regional suspicion over its intentions.

“I certainly doubt that we will see a complete realisation of either scenario,” Ms Bishop said on Friday. “As its power grows, China will become integrated into the international system. It doesn’t mean addressing the challenges and risks will be easy.”

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